Differences Between a Product Owner, Project Manager, and Program Manager
These job titles can overlap in many ways, but there are some fundamental differences in these roles that are important to understand when applying or considering talent for these roles. Here are the fundamental differences between a product owner, project manager, and program manager:
A product owner is someone that advocates for the product across the organization. This one person that represents the interests of the teams that may be focused on the product, the specific projects, or the programs. A product owner does not plan projects or programs. Instead, they serve as the key liasion between the different stakeholders to ensure that the product stays on track with the needs of the business or the end users.
A product owner may be responsible for technical products (i.e. software, hardware, or systems) or operational/service based products (i.e. insurance, support, or other professional services that may or may not be related to technology).
The product owner may choose to obtain certification, but this is not always required. The most common certification for a product owner is a Certified Scrum Product Owner.
A product owner does not plan projects, manage budgets, or manage programs. Instead, they are focused on developing, managing, and enhancing the products that they are assigned to. They may have responsibility for a product budget - not a project or program budget.
A product owner will also prioritize the backlog for the product. This may include support or UI/UX to enhance the overall user's experience of the particular product.
Product owners can serve as a product owner for more than 1 product. However, when they are functioning as a product owner for a particular product, they will be focused on that product and advocating for it exclusively to make sure that the goals of the product and its users remains in focus.
A project manager does not own a specific product or program. Instead, a project manager or project coordinator will be focused on achieving particular objectives to maintain momentum towards a defined goal. Project professionals will work across products and programs to achieve these goals.
A project manager or project coordinator will work on technical projects (i.e. software development, engineering, medical devices, etc.), operational/business projects (i.e. improving internal practices/processes, streamlining customer onboarding, or any other non-technical project), construction projects (i.e. design-build, commercial construction, remodels, residential construction, etc.), internal governance of the project management office (PMO) (i.e. standardizing project processes, automating processes, tracking, changing methodologies - Agile, Waterfall, etc.). Some project professionals will work on a combination of technical, operational, construction, and internal governance projects across their careers.
Project professionals are typically more tactical in their focus. Their job is to analyze the requirements, build a project plan, create a budget for the project, manage the project team, and lead any post-project follow-up.
Many project professionals will pursue certifications. Employers are increasingly requiring these certifications as part of the hiring process. The most widely accepted certifications for project professionals are the Project Management Professional (PMP) or Certified Associate Project Management (CAPM). Other project management certifications exist and may be helpful, but the PMP is hands-down the one that is most widely valued by employers in the talent acquisition process. The Project Management Institute issues the PMP and CAPM and you can learn more about them here.
A program is typically defined 2 different ways in the private sector. First, a program can be a portfolio of projects. Meaning that there are countless projects being managed with their own deadlines, budgets, and teams. In that case, the Program Manager is responsible for managing the portfolio of projects and all of the project teams within that portfolio.
Alternatively, a program may be a primary initiative or policy of the organization. For example, a non-profit may have a curriculum designed just for youth. That youth focused curriculum and its participants would be part of a program. In this case, the program manager would be responsible for presenting the curriculum, overseeing the staff, and engaging with the youth participants. As further example, a program in a large corporation could be overseeing all change management. In that case, the program manager would be the person responsible for designing and approving the processes to standardize and monitor the change management within the enterprise.
A program manager tends to be more strategic. Unlike the project manager, they will decide the direction of the program and get the approval or funding to make that vision happen. Unlike the product owner, the program manager will work across products to support the delivery and continuous improvement of their program.
Program managers may be focused on technology programs. In that case, they will often fall under the first definition of a program - that of a portfolio of projects. Program managers focused on non-technical programs (i.e. operational, construction, or internal governance) will most often fall under the second definition of a program - that of a major initiative or process. But, it is possible for non-technical program managers to also sit under the first definition of a program - that of a portfolio of projects.
Program managers will often manage the budget for their program. They tend to have a role in not only setting it, but also making sure that the expenses stay on track across the program to meet the defined objectives or strategic goals.
There are some certifications for program managers. But, there is not a universally required or expected certification as is frequently found with project managers. The nature of the program managers focus or their particular niche will dictate the type of certification (if any) that is helpful to their career or job search.